THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

13 posts categorized "Digital scholarship"

07 May 2021

Games in the Woods: getting creative during the Urban Tree Festival

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Ever wanted to create a game inspired by trees? Well now’s your chance!

The British Library will be running Games in the Woods, a tree-themed online game jam as part of this year’s Urban Tree Festival which takes place from 15 to 23 May 2021. The festival, now in its fourth year, celebrates all things related to urban and suburban trees, woodlands and associated wild places that bring so much life and joy to our cities.

Games in the Woods online games jam logo

The jam encourages people of all ages, either alone or in teams, to create digital or analogue games such as video games, interactive fiction, web comics, board games, escape games, card games or anything else that springs to mind.

Participants are encouraged to make use of the library’s digital content when creating their games. A dedicated playlist of downloadable wildlife and environmental sound recordings is available on the library’s Soundcloud account. From woodland creatures and babbling brooks to rumbling thunder and pouring rain, these recordings should come in useful when designing soundtracks.

A wide selection of images from the library’s collection of digitised 19th century books can also be drawn upon during the creative process. Check out our Flora and Fauna albums or, if you’re feeling lucky,  just use tree-related terms to search the photostream.

Collage of tree-related images from the BL Flickr collection

Head on over to the Library's Digital Scholarship blog where Stella Wisdom has posted more information about the jam. Here you can also read about a similar novel-themed jam that was recently organised by Leeds Libraries.

Games in the Woods will run throughout the duration of the festival. There will be a launch event on Saturday 15 May with inspiring examples of interactive digital experiences featuring trees and then a show and tell on Sunday 23 May for jammers to share their creations. We look forward to seeing what you come up with!

Follow @CherylTipp and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

14 December 2020

Recording of the week: Gut feelings in weather forecasting

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This week's selection comes from Camille Johnston, Oral History Assistant Archivist.

Portrait photograph of Julia Slingo
Julia Slingo at the Meteorological Office in Exeter as its Chief Scientist, 2013

In her oral history interview Professor Dame Julia Slingo describes many aspects of her life and work as a climate modeller. Her research has focused on tropical climate variability and its impact on the global climate. She started her career at the Meteorological Office, where she received training in weather forecasting – developing a ‘gut feeling’ for the weather:

Julia Slingo speaking about 'gut feelings' in weather forecasting [C1379/61] 

Could you now then describe the practical training on this Met Office course at Shinfield Park?

Yes, so every afternoon we would take the current weather patterns and what we’d learn to do was to actually plot the charts, so in those days you learnt how to plot all the symbols that describe the weather at a particular location and then you’d draw up the chart with the pressure pat – the isobars and you’d use the observations to decide where the weather fronts must be from things about what the observations were telling you. And we learnt to work out things like … the difference between what the weather’s doing at the surface and what the weather’s doing in the middle of the troposphere, it would also tell you about how weather patterns would change with time. But we – it was all very practical because at that stage none of this was computerised; there was a lot of hand drawing and – and plotting observations and thinking about – and interpreting what they mean and so we would – that was – that was what we spent the afternoons doing and then we would make our own forecasts: what we thought was going to happen to the weather patterns over the UK the following day. And it was fascinating, because what you also learn is that – is that expert judgement comes into this as well, that it’s not just purely theory, there’s actually all sorts of local knowledge comes in. And I can still remember having drawn up this beautiful chart and put a cold front in where I thought it ought to be ‘cause of what the winds were doing and all of that and I remember the tutor, the guy who was taking the class coming round and he’d say – he’d say, ‘Well Julia, why do you think the cold front’s there?’ and I’d say, ‘Oh well that’s because, you know, the winds are doing this and the pressure’s doing that,’ and blah-de-blah-de-blah. And he’d say, ‘Well I think it’s probably going to be more over here,’ and I’d say, ‘But why?’ he said, ‘Well just because I just know.’ And there was all that – there was also that – all that element of experience that comes in so this idea that, you know, when you watch the weather day after day after day you learn about … you get a gut feeling for it, which has never left me actually. So it’s – it’s not only having the theoretical base but it’s also that sort of experience and the fact that we do experience the weather from day to day which so much of physics you can’t get that sort of feeling. And, you know, now I can sort of look at a weather map or I can look at a satellite picture and I just say, I've got that feeling that it’s going to do this.

This clip features on the website Voices of Science. Further extracts from Julia Slingo’s interview are available on her interviewee page. Voices of Science tells the stories of some of the most remarkable scientific and engineering discoveries of the past century, featuring extracts from over 100 oral history interviews.

Julia Slingo was recorded by interviewer Paul Merchant in 2011 for the National Life Stories project An Oral History of British Science. Listen to the recording in full on BL Sounds.

Follow @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

30 November 2020

Recording of the week: Baffies on St Andrew’s Day

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This week's selection comes from Harriet Roden, Digital Learning Content Developer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

The British Library’s Sound Archive plays host to an extensive collection of recordings of English accents and dialects. They’re a great resource for academic linguists, school teachers and their students alike, as well as learners of English as a foreign language.

But on a personal note, when listening to them they do hold a certain joy. They invite you to consider why you say certain words, certain phrases. Raising questions like – what influences did your family, or hometown have on you? Do you have certain words that none of your friends use?

As today is St Andrew’s Day, I’ve been reflecting on what influence my Scottish relatives in the Highlands have had on the vocabulary I use. From the obvious: neeps and tatties – which were a staple part of my diet growing up. To the more playful (or insulting, depending on how you look at it): skinny-marrink to describe my childhood twig-like appearance.

And this influence can extend to the tips of your toes. What do you wear on your feet when you’re at home? Nothing? Socks? Shoes? – Or perhaps, like this anonymous speaker – baffies?

Baffies Wordbank (BL REF C1442/849)

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This term for slippers is thought to originate in the east coast of Scotland, in particular from Fife and Perthshire.

Close up photograph of a pair of hard-soled slippers on carpet
IHHEva047-Pixabay-slippers-2729401 | © Courtesy of Pixabay

The speaker in this clip hits on why we may choose to extend beyond Standard English – for the feeling of it! They describe the term baffies as having a warm, cosy feeling to it which is exactly the purpose to wearing a pair of slippers: to keep your toes toasty.

This recording comes from the Evolving English: VoiceBank, which is a celebration of English accents worldwide. The collection, created between November 2010 and April 2011 by visitors to the British Library exhibition ‘Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices’, includes contributors of all ages and embraces varieties of English in the UK and overseas including non-native speakers.

Discover more familial words like baffies, wibbles or nautica on the British Library’s If Homes Had Ears website.

UOSH_Footer_2019_Magenta (004)

Follow @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

30 October 2020

Going batty for Halloween

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Bats have a long association with Halloween. The most obvious reason for this emerges when we look at another classic character for this time of year, the vampire. As with vampires, bats are creatures of the night, only leaving their roosts after the last rays of sunlight have faded for the day. The majority of bats are also hunters and a few species even drink the blood of other animals.

Illustration of a Vampire bat

Bats also have a lot to thank Bram Stoker for. Though earlier authors and artists had already begun drawing parallels between vampires and bats, it was Stoker’s 1897 gothic horror novel, Dracula, which cemented this association in popular culture. At several points during the novel a bat is seen flapping against a closed window, however we have to wait until Chapter 18 before Van Helsing confirms the link between animal and vampire:

'He can be as bat, as Madam Mina saw him on the window at Whitby, and as friend John saw him fly from this so house, and as my friend Quincey saw him at the window of Miss Lucy.'

A much more ancient relationship between bats and Halloween can be found within the rituals of Samhain, the Celtic pagan festival celebrated from 31 October to 1 November. Huge bonfires with cleansing and protective properties were lit to mark the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. The glow of the fire would attract nearby insects and these would be followed closely by bats looking for an easy meal. Given that the invisible boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead was believed to be at its thinnest during Samhain, it’s easy to understand how the silent, black silhouettes of bats darting around the flames could be construed as having supernatural meaning.

Selection of bat illustrations selected from the British Library's Flickr collection

Though Halloween is full of many ghoulish and spine-tingling sounds, the calls of bats aren't one of them. The answer to this may seem obvious enough - most bats communicate and echolocate at frequencies above the human hearing range - but that doesn't mean we can't spend a little bit of time enjoying the many weird and wonderful, yet normally hidden bat sounds that still fill the night sky at this time of year. 

Common Pipistrelle echolocation & social calls. Recorded in West Sussex, England on 11 September 2014 by Phil Riddett (ref 222208) 

Greater Horseshoe Bat echolocation. Recorded in Wiltshire, England on 14 July 1985 by William Seale (ref 17018)

Noctule echolocation. Recorded in Kent, England on 26 June 1986 by Richard Ranft (ref 18530) 

Though these recordings are actually kind of cute, there are many other legitimately spooky sounds within the sound archive's wildlife collection. Screaming foxes, howling wolves, cawing crows, rumbling thunder, lashing rain and lots of other examples can be found. A number of these recordings were compiled for the 2014 Off the Map videogame competition which challenged higher education students to create videogames inspired by some of the British Library’s gothic-related collection items. Students were encouraged to incorporate these sounds into their games and this was done to great effect, particularly when it came to the second place winning entry ‘Whitby’.

All recordings are still available on the British Library’s Soundcloud account under Creative Commons licenses so do check out the Off the Map Gothic playlist. Be sure to also visit the Digital Scholarship blog to find out more about other gothic-themed events held at the library over the past few years. And if that wasn't enough, there's also an excellent album of free to reuse ghostly and macabre images available through our Flickr collection.

Over the past few weeks the UK Web Archive has been busy researching the changing popularity of terms such as Halloween and Bonfire Night. Head on over to their blog to read more about these changes and, while you’re there, why not try out some searches of your own using the big data Shine tool. Their website also has a dedicated Festivals section and now would be the perfect time to nominate some of your favourite Halloween-related UK sites.

Throughout today we’ll be sharing some special video animations, images and sounds that have a distinctly creepy vibe. So follow our Wildlife, Digital Scholarship and Web Archive Twitter accounts to see all of these. And however you choose to spend your Halloween, we hope you have a fang-tastic time!

28 September 2020

Recording of the week: Discovering Sibelius

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This week's selection comes from Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music Recordings.

Working at home has allowed me to listen to a lot more music than I normally would. One advantage is the opportunity to get to know areas of classical music that are unfamiliar. For me, one of those was the symphonies of the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.

Robert Wilhelm Ekman's painting Lemminkäinen at the Fiery Lake
Lemminkäinen at the Fiery Lake, Robert Wilhelm Ekman, c. 1867

It is extraordinary to think that Sibelius as conductor could have recorded his own works in the stereo LP era as he did not die until 1957. However, he withdrew from life and stopped composing during the mid-1920s after completing his Seventh Symphony and a few other orchestral works.

The first complete recording of the Symphonies to be released was made in 1952-1953 by Sixten Ehrling and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, but more famous is the cycle recorded for Decca by Anthony Collins and the London Symphony Orchestra between 1952 and 1954. This mono set is still held to be one of the best interpretations on disc. Other complete sets I have enjoyed recently are those by Jukka-Pekka Saraste and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Many of the symphony cycles have other orchestral works as fillers such as Night Ride and Sunrise Op. 55, The Oceanides Op. 73, and the Lemminkäinen Suite Op. 22. Sibelius was a patriot, especially during the Russian occupation when his music became a rallying cry for his people with works such as the famous Finlandia. The Lemminkäinen Suite is based on Finnish folk legends (subtitled Four Legends from the Kalevala) and is a suite in four movements, the second of which is the famous Swan of Tuonela. The last movement is the thrilling Lemminkäinen’s Return Home.

Sir Thomas Beecham made a famous recording of the movement in October 1937, but he also performed the Suite at a Queen’s Hall concert on 27th February 1936. This Royal Philharmonic Society concert included Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, Walton’s Viola Concerto with William Primrose as soloist, a Schubert Symphony and the Sibelius Suite. A recording of Lemminkäinen’s Return Home exists in the Kenneth Leech collection (C738) at the British Library.

Having died in 1957 Sibelius is still in copyright so here are three short extracts which show the drive, power and excitement Beecham could bring to a live performance, encouraging the players of the London Philharmonic Orchestra to play at their virtuoso best.

In the first extract, you can hear Beecham shout at the climax.

Lemminkainen's Return extract 1

The articulation of the strings and brass is particularly noticeable in this next extract.

Lemminkainen's Return extract 2

The final extract is of the closing pages of the work.

Lemminkainen's Return extract 3

 

Follow @BLSoundHeritage@BL_Classical@soundarchive for all the latest news.

04 August 2020

In celebration of owls

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Today marks International Owl Awareness Day, an annual celebration created to raise awareness and spread knowledge about these fascinating birds of prey. 

There are around 200 species of owl living today. Some, such as the Elf Owl, can fit into the palm of your hand while others, such as Blakiston's Fish Owl are the size of a small child. Some birds, such as the aptly-named Snowy Owl, are adapted to life in the frozen Arctic tundra while others, such as the Burrowing Owl, prefer the heat of the desert.

Owls of North AmericaPlate featuring illustrations of 8 owl species. Taken from The Birds of North America by Jacob H. Studer (1903)

The sound archive has over 2,500 recordings of owls from all over the world. Though by no means exhaustive, this constantly growing collection has served researchers, educators and creators for over 50 years. Below are just a few examples of our favourite recordings:

Eurasian Scops Owl (Otus scops), recorded by Alan Burbidge in the Bükk Hills range of Hungary on 10 May 2003 (BL ref 145594)

Tawny Owl (Strix aluco), recorded by Richard Margoschis in Gloucestershire, England on 16 October 1979 (BL ref 09647)

Madagascar Scops Owls (Otus rutilus),  recorded by Tony Baylis in Montagne d'Ambre National Park on 30 September 1990  (BL ref 66410)

Barking Owls (Ninox connivens), recorded by David Lumsdaine in Queensland, Australia on 24 November 1997 (BL ref 152426)

If you're interested in visuals then the British Library's Flickr collection is your new best friend. Here you will find a fantastic assortment of freely available images taken from the pages of some of our 17th-19th century digitised books. There's even an entire album dedicated to owls. So head on over to the Digital Scholarship blog to read more about this collection and the different ways in which you can use these images to make some art of your own.Selection of owl images from the British Library's Flickr accountA selection of owl images from the British Library's Flickr collection 

The UK Web Archive is another excellent resource for owl-related information. The Web Archive team have been doing some domain digging and have found that the Barn Owl was consistently the most talked about British owl between 1996-2013. Visit the team's blog to find out more about this and learn how you can nominate your own favourite websites for inclusion in the UK Web Archive.

Today is a great day to learn more about owls. As well as checking out our blog posts, make sure to follow #InternationalOwlAwarenessDay on Twitter to see what else is going on around the world. We'll also be sharing some special owl GIFs which feature both sounds and images taken from our collections. These were created by our Assistant Web Archivist and will be popping up on the Wildlife, Web Archive and Digital Scholarship Twitter accounts. So do check these out too. It'll be a hoot.

30 June 2020

The Santals, Scandinavian missionaries, and salvage ethnomusicology: an encounter of three worlds

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Since 2015, Christian Poske has conducted his PhD research on the Bengal recordings of the Arnold Bake Collection. A Collaborative Doctoral Scholarship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK, situated his PhD within two institutions: the British Library Sound Archive and SOAS, University of London. He conducted his fieldwork in Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Bangladesh from April to October 2017, revisiting the locations of Arnold Bake’s fieldwork. Christian's fieldwork investigated the aims and methods of Bake’s research in the early 1930s and studied the continuity and change in the devotional and folk music and dance documented by Bake. Christian is completing his PhD in Music this year at SOAS and in addition to his research has been engaged as a cataloguer for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. He currently works as Bengali Cataloguer at the Department of Asian and African Collections at the British Library.

The audio recordings from the Christian Poske Collection have recently been catalogued and will be available for on-site listening at the British Library when the Reading Rooms re-open. For now, those interested can access the descriptions of the recordings by browsing the Sound and Moving Image catalogue for catalogue entries under collection number C1795. This blog post written by Christian Poske is an insightful introduction to the collection through his fieldwork in Jharkhand and West Bengal.

The restudy of historical sound recordings often gives unexpected results. During my research on the cylinder recordings of the Dutch musicologist Arnold Bake (1899-1963) at the British Library Sound Archive, I came across a number of sparsely documented recordings made at a Christian mission for the Santals, a South Asian aboriginal people centred in the Indian state of Jharkhand today. When I conducted my fieldwork in 2017, I found out that one of the church songs recorded by Bake is still popular among converts in the region.

'Recently, I had the opportunity to start recording Santal music… To really get in touch with the Santals, I have turned to the currently most important authority in this field, Dr Bodding... However, he is a missionary, and as he helped me along, we arrived at a huge boarding school for Santals. But it looks worse than it is. The mission has the policy to change as little as possible. Language, music and customs are, if anyhow possible, retained. All melodies used in the church are pure Santal melodies, although the words were made Christian... The music as such is quite unlike Hindu music, and their whole musical sense is very different. They love polyphony a lot when they get to hear it. I have recorded a sample (which hardly has any scientific value) how the Santal singing master of the school edited a song with four voices without actually ever having a European education, he does not speak a word of English, for example. The boys sing it with passion, which you could never expect from the Hindus…'
(Arnold Bake, letter to Erich M. v. Hornbostel, 15.4.1931, Berlin Phonogram Archive)

With these words, Bake explained his fieldwork at the Kairabani mission to Erich M. v. Hornbostel (1877-1935), the director of the Berlin Phonogram Archive. The Norwegian missionary Paul Olaf Bodding (1865-1938) of the Santal Mission of the Northern Churches had arranged Bake’s visit to Kairabani.

1. Kairabani Church 1926
'The new Kairabani Church at the consecration, 1926' (Photographs of the Danmission, Copenhagen/ International Mission Photography Archive, USC Digital Library)

In the letter to Hornbostel, Bake referred to the church song 'Boge gupi do' ('The Good Shepherd') that had been composed by the Norwegian missionary Lars Olsen Skrefsrud (1840-1910) around 1886 (Gausal 1935: 70). Skrefsrud, one of the founders of the Santal Mission of the Northern Churches, settled in India to make sustained efforts to convert the Santals from animist belief to Christianity. He learned Santali language from 1867 onwards and published the first comprehensive grammar of the language a few years later (1873), which introduced a romanisation system providing the language with the first standard script that is still used by converts today, with minor amendments made by Bodding.

Skrefsrud group photo
From left to right: Missionaries H. P. Børresen, H. J. Muston, L. O. Skrefsrud, with Santali hunting priest, chiefs (with turbans), hunters, and musicians (Santal Parganas, 1874) (Photographs of the Danmission, Copenhagen / International Mission Photography Archive, USC Digital Library)

Bake recorded solo and choral renditions of the song 'Boge gupi do', which is based on a traditional Santali melody, as he correctly noted. However, the choral version had not been arranged by the Santali choir leader of the Kairabani mission, but by an organist of the Santal Mission of the Northern Churches (Rạṛ Puthi 1929: preface).

'Boge gupi do' performed by male singer, Kairabani, March 1931 (C52/1641)

'Boge gupi do' performed by male choir, Kairabani, March 1931 (C52/2128)

Arnold Bake’s views on the Santals and their music and dance were influenced by colonial ethnographic clichés of aboriginal peoples that he replicated in his correspondence and publications (Bake 1936-37: 68), where he portrayed the Santals as a natural and pleasure-loving people, fond of music, dance, and drinking, and overall in a half-civilised state. One month after his visit to Kairabani, he filmed Santali dances at a Hindu festival in the village Kankalitola near Santiniketan. In a letter to his relatives, he described what he had seen in Kankalitola as 'a real nature dance':

'I am so curious what you will think of the films from Kankalitola that we left behind in Calcutta last week to reproduce. It was the typical male and female dances. You will see, I think, why the missionaries are against this dancing, it is very sensuous, yet it has great charm… And so entirely unaffected, a real nature dance.' (Arnold Bake, letter to his mother-in-law, 20.5.1931, Mss Eur F191/8, 191)

In Kairabani, he photographed Santali pupils playing their instruments at the mission, but he seems to have been dissatisfied with the sober ambience of the premises. To also have a picture of a Santali musician in a natural environment, he probably arranged a photo with one of the musicians outside:

Santali flute player by pond
Santali flute player by a pond, photograph by Arnold Bake (Kairabani mission, March 1931)

In this period, Hornbostel and other comparative musicologists collected recordings from musicologists and ethnographers worldwide at the Berlin Phonogram Archive 'to save what can be saved' of the traditional musics of the world threatened by the spread of Western culture (Hornbostel 1904-5: 97). Such recordings were expected to be made in surroundings free from European cultural influences. Therefore, Hornbostel marked all of Bake’s recordings from the mission as “worthless” (Ziegler 2006: 101-2), notwithstanding whether these featured traditional Santali or Christian songs. The reason for Hornbostel’s drastic measure was his suspicion that exposure to western church music had affected the Santals’ renditions of their own traditional songs. In his reply to Bake, he only hinted at his reservations:

'I am already very excited about the recordings and hope that you will have more opportunity for interesting recordings... of the Santals. In general: the more you record, the better, provided that the music is not europeanised yet.'
(Erich M. v. Hornbostel, letter to Arnold Bake, 5.7.1931, BPA)

When I began to evaluate Bake’s recordings at the British Library Sound Archive in 2015, I could not distinguish traditional from Christian songs among the Kairabani recordings due to my lack of knowledge of Santali language. Through my fieldwork, I was able to find out more. In Jharkhand, I visited the Kairabani mission school that still exists today. Here, I met the Santali language teacher Ignatius Besra, who helped me with the evaluation of the recordings at his home in Dumka. As he recognised the song 'Boge gupi do' (C52/2128), he rushed from the desk in the living room to another room to bring the church song book Sereń Puthi. He showed me the lyrics and said it was a 'hit' still popular among converts today. When I left, he gave me his copy on the way. I visited the Kairabani mission for the last time the following day and asked a schoolteacher to sing the song for me:

'Boge gupi do' performed by Nalini B. Hansdak Kairabani, May 2017 (C1795/11)

Mansaram Murmu, a doctoral researcher from Visva-Bharati University, translated it for me in Santiniketan two months later:

            Boge gupi do / A good shepherd -
            Ac’ren bhiḍhiko, boeha, / for his sheep, brothers,
            Ạḍiy’ jotonko; / he cares a lot.
            Sahre jaegate / Towards a good place,
            phạria dak’ jharanatey’ / to a spring of clean water,
            Ạyur idiko. / he leads them.

            Mit’ bhiḍiy’ at’len khan, / When a sheep gets lost -
            Ạuri ńame dhạbic’ doe / until he retrieves it,
            Gupi pańjaye. / he searches it.
            Uni ńamkate / When he has found it,
            Tarenrey’ ladeye / he carries it on his shoulder
            Rạskạ monte. / gladly.

            Ac’ak’ oṛak’te / At his home,
            Seṭerkate do boeha / when he has arrived, brothers,
            Peṛae jarwako, / he invites its kin,
            Onkoe metako / and tells them,
            Rạskạk’pe iń tuluc’, / Rejoice with me,
            Bhidin ńamkede. / I have found the lost sheep.

            Tạruc’e hec’len khan /When the tiger comes
            Ṭheṅga epelkate doe / he brandishes the stick
            Teṅgo darame; / and saves them. .
            Ac’ren bhiḍiko / His sheep,
            Maraṅ mũhim khongey’ / from huge danger
            Aḍ bańcaoko. / he saves them.

            Bhiḍi ńutumte / For the sheep,
            Boge gupi do boeha, / a good shepherd, brothers,
            Jiwiy’ alaea; / sacrifices his life.
            Jisui nonkaket’, / Jesus does like this
            Bańcao akat’bonae, / he has saved you
            Soetan tạrup’ khon. / from the grasp of the devil-tiger.

            Sereń Puthi (2015: 168)

Carrying out fieldwork with Bake’s recordings showed me the advantages of reconnecting cultural heritage communities with historical sound recordings that are insufficiently documented. Apart from the ethical imperative of making recordings from the colonial period accessible in countries of origin again, community engagement often brings valuable information to light that makes it possible to enhance the archival documentation of recordings, which ultimately makes the material more meaningful to everyone.

This blog is derived from my PhD research “Continuity and Change: A Restudy of Arnold Adriaan Bake’s research on the devotional and folk music and dance of Bengal 1925-1956”, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK, Award No. 1664039.

Further Reading:

Rạṛ Puthi: Book of Melodies (Choral Book). 1929. Dumka: The Santal Mission of the Northern Churches.

Sereń Puthi ["Book of Songs"]. 2015. Dumka: Dumka Diocesan Council (NELC).

Bake, Arnold A. 1936-7. ‘Indian Folk-Music’. Proceedings of the Musical Association 63: 65– 77.

Gausdal, Johannes. 1935. Contributions to Santal Hymnology. Bibliotheca Norvegiæ Sacræ 11. Bergen: Lunde.

Hornbostel, Erich Moritz von. 1904-5. ‘Die Probleme Der Vergleichenden Musikwissenschaft’. Zeitschrift Der Internationalen Musikgesellschaft 7: 85-97.

Skrefsrud, Lars Olsen. 1873. A Grammar of the Santhal Language. Calcutta: Calcutta School Book and Vernacular Literature Society.

Ziegler, Susanne. 2006. Die Wachszylinder Des Berliner Phonogramm-Archivs. Veröffentlichungen des Ethnologischen Museums Berlin. Berlin: Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

18 June 2020

Arabic music record sleeves and what they can tell us

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Hazem Jamjoum joined the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Project in April 2019 as Gulf History Audio Curator and Cataloguer. In this blog post he explores what record sleeves have helped him learn about the early 20th-century music industry in the Arab world.

For some decades, the British Library's sound archive routinely discarded shellac record sleeves. The sleeves were flimsy paper envelopes, not particularly suited for protecting the discs. Over time, the paper disintegrates into dust that lodges itself into the grooves on the discs and interferes with playback. To make matters worse, moving discs in and out of old crumbling sleeves without damaging the paper can be quite a delicate task. That said, the sleeves have much to offer researchers, which is why many archives such as the British Library's sound archive now keep the sleeves, and resources permitting, invest the time, effort and hard drive space to safeguard them as digital images. In this piece, I hope to share some of what I have learned by examining shellac record sleeves from the early twentieth century mashriq (Arab East) by focussing on the story of one particular company, Baidaphon.

Baidaphon was founded around 1906 by six cousins from the Syrian-Lebanese Baida family, with one group of brothers living in Beirut, and the other group, in Berlin. The centre labels printed on the company’s early records tell us a great deal, but it is the sleeves that the company begins to use after WWI that I aim to examine here. Baidaphon sleeves from the 1920s, some of which were accessioned into the British Library’s collection through a gift from Emile Cohen and Ezra Hakkak, seem to have been standardized with a revealing message to customers:

'In order to reduce the expense to our generous clients living in American, Australian and African regions, and to ensure timely delivery of goods, we ask that orders be henceforth sent directly to our Berlin shops at the following address: Pierre & Gabriel Baida - Berlin Mittelstraße 55.'

Shellac disc sleeve with Berlin showroom address
Fig 1. Baidaphon record sleeve from the 1920s instructing customers outside the Middle East how to order from Berlin.

Beyond informing us that the company’s Berlin showroom was no more than a ten-minute walk from the Brandenburg Gate, the note to the customers also gives us a sense that much of the company’s business was conducted through mail orders, and that a growing proportion of these orders came from the massive Greater Syrian (and other Arabic speaking) diasporas across the Americas, Australia and Africa. By the time of the Great Depression, Baidaphon was a company operating on a global scale.

At the end of the 1920s, Baidaphon signed the most vaunted of Egypt’s twentieth century singer-songwriters: Mohammad Abdelwahhab. This was a major milestone in the company’s competition with its larger rivals, so much so that it produced a special sleeve for recordings of Abdelwahhab’s songs. Printed at the bottom of the front face of these sleeves was a photograph of the young composer in a tuxedo and tarbūsh (fez), identifying him in Latin script as 'Prof. Mohamed Abdel Wahhab', with Arabic script at the top going into flowery prose that described him as an 'artistic genius' and 'musician to kings and princes'. The back of the sleeve had the now-familiar instructions to the tri-continental diaspora to send their orders to the company’s Berlin headquarters.

Within the same period, the company began producing records by Elie Baida, son of the Beirut-branch’s Jibril Baida. Elie was a musician in his own right, renowned for his mastery of the Baghdādi style of mawwāl, a virtuosic vocal performance, invariably performed a cappella or with minimal instrumental backing, and often serving as a sentimental introduction to a song. Elie was soon dubbed the 'king of the Baghdadi' and later moved to the United States, where he lived for several decades until his tragic death in 1977. The company produced a near-identical version of the special Abdelwahhab sleeve, with the photo of Elie in place of Abdelwahhab’s though without the florid encomium.

The company’s investment in such sleeves gives us a sense of their marketing strategy at the time. Beyond relying on brand recognition, the company had moved into highlighting the considerable celebrity of its recording artists, such as Abdelwahhab and Baida, to appeal to buyers and listeners.

Shellac disc sleeve featuring Elie Baida
Fig. 2 Baidaphon record sleeve from the 1920s specially designed to market records by Elie Baida.

Sleeves also have much to tell us about Baidaphon’s response to the Great Depression, and the death of one of the company’s founding shareholders, Pierre Baida. It appears that the company aimed at restructuring in such a way that parts of the company focussed on particularly lucrative geographic areas were reconstituted as new companies. The most important of these restructuring manoeuvres were those affecting its operations in Egypt, where the Egyptian branch of the company was repackaged in the 1930s as an entirely new label: Cairophon. Though quite minimalist in comparison with the Baidaphon sleeves of the same period, the earliest Cairophon sleeves mark the connection between the two companies quite clearly. With one side in Arabic and the other in French, the sleeves state the new company’s address as 34 Rue Mousky, which matches that of the Baidaphon Cairo showroom in the 1920s. Furthermore, the new sleeves clearly state that Cairophon belonged to the 'heirs of Pierre Baida and their partners.' The new partner in question was none other than the most recent addition to the company’s roster of recording artists: Mohammad Abdelwahhab.

Shellac disc sleeve for Cairophon label
Fig. 3: Early Cairophon sleeve.

Another shellac disc sleeve that joined the British Library collection through the Cohen and Hakkak gift helps us see yet another connection between Baidaphon and the expansion of the recording industry in the Arab world, albeit in a somewhat roundabout way. Likely dating from the late 1940s or early 1950s, this is a Cairophon sleeve with text exclusively in Arabic, except for the company’s new logo which features its name above a landscape sketch of the Giza pyramids and palm trees.

Cairophon record label shellac disc sleeve from Baghdad
Fig 4. Cairophon-Baghdad sleeve.

Above the logo, and underneath the company name in Arabic, are the words 'for Iraq, Iran, Bahrain and Kuwait', a clear indication of the expansion of the company’s business throughout the Arabo-Persian Gulf region. The right and left columns of the busy sleeve feature images of a bicycle, a transistor radio set and a portable record player. The text on either side is an eclectic list of items sold by the producer of the sleeve, including record players and discs, dyes, washing machines, fans, batteries, and children’s bicycles. Centered on the bottom of the sleeve are the words:

’Āref Chamakchi
Baghdad, al-Rasheed Street 295/1
Telephone 7889

There is much to say about al-Rasheed Street, the Chakmakchi family and the role of both the street and the company in Iraqi musical life. For now, it suffices to say that the Chakmakchis’ electronics store in the middle of the most musically significant street in Baghdad soon added a recording studio to its operations, creating the label Chakmakchiphone which was unparalleled in recording, popularizing and preserving the maqām and rīfī repertoires of Iraq. Though the British Library collection includes nearly one hundred Chamakchiphone records, currently being catalogued and digitized under the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme, sadly not one of the company’s sleeves has made it into the collection.

One such undated sleeve in the collection of the Arab American National Museum shows that the phone number for Chakmakchiphone was the same as that of the electronics (and children’s bicycle) retailer appearing on the Cairophon sleeve, but that the company had taken over different storefronts along Rasheed Street for different aspects of its operations. It also shows that they had expanded these operations to Mosul. The Cairophon sleeve itself tells us that the Egyptian company contracted the Chakmakchis to operate as their agents in the Arabo-Persian Gulf, and suggests that this partnership was very likely an important moment in the development of the Iraqi recording industry given the centrality of Chakmakchiphone in that development.

Historians of recorded sound rightly lament the loss of primary source material resulting from the destruction of record company archives. The Odeon company headquarters, for instance, were destroyed in the 1944 Allied bombing of Berlin, and Baidaphon’s was burned down in the 1987 during civil war in Lebanon. In our thirst for any tidbit of information, such seemingly useless ephemera as disc packaging take on all the more importance as sources through which to reconstruct the histories of music production around the world. I hope I’ve managed to show some of the ways in which this is the case, and perhaps encouraged those who have such objects in their possession to photograph and share them, and perhaps consider donating them to a nearby library or archive.

This post was written by Hazem Jamjoum, Gulf History Audio Curator and Cataloguer for the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Project (BLQF), which produces the Qatar Digital Library. Follow @BLQatar, @BL_WorldTrad and @soundarchive for all the latest news.